Heifers, handlers rise to the challenge

NEW HAVEN — Heifers at the 4-H Youth Dairy Show Conformation Class at the Addison County Fair and Field Days are scrutinized on almost every physical trait — from their big wet noses to their tasseled tails, the animals are judged based on an “ideal” for the breed.
But the heifer is not the only one feeling the heat. To be a champion, handlers age eight to 18 must train and groom their animals to perfection.
When the 2009 Addison County Fair and Field Days kicked off earlier this week, handlers and heifers both stepped into the ring at the 4-H conformation competition. 4-H conformation competitions in dairy, sheep, working steer and horse categories run throughout the five-day fair.
Whiting Cloverleaves 4-H leaders Heather Mattison and Becky Bertrand both had children who were showing their animals in the conformations classes. For 4-Hers, Mattison and Bertrand agreed, a trip to the fair to show heifers is as educational as it is enjoyable.
“It teaches them a lot of team work, how to be really patient with the animals,” Mattison said. “Very often when the animals come in, they may be doing great at the barn and this is a completely new environment and they may act up.”
Bertrand said showing also teaches the young handlers responsibility. Oftentimes the 4-H’ers do not live on the farm where the animal is housed and so the show gives the child a chance to learn how to handle and train their animal.”
“I just hope they have a lot of fun and learn to pay attention to the judge, and that they learn a little bit more about how to show their animal correctly,” Mattison said.
As they headed into the ring, Cian Quinn, 15, and his two-year-old brown and white Ayrshire heifer were calm, cool and collected. With nine years under his belt, the handler was already an old hat at showing heifers. In the show ring, several heifers bounced around, dragging their handlers from one corner to another, but Quinn held his cow’s head still with a brown leather halter and lead as the judge walks past.
To the layman, the heifers in the Ayrshire Winter Yearling Class might look strikingly similar, except for slight differences in their markings, but to the trained eye, the smallest variation can either win the blue or leave a handler empty handed. Judges look for functional traits that enhance the animal’s ability to do their job rather than characteristics that make the animal aesthetically beautiful. In the Ayrshire’s case, the judge looks at the conformation, or the build, of the animal, picking out traits that would signify a high milk production over the lifespan of the heifer.
Leading his heifer out of the ring with a blue ribbon flapping from her halter, Quinn beamed. He said his heifer won because she is long and “has a good front end on her.” While in the ring, Judge Chris Hannan inspected Quinn’s heifer based on her frame, which includes her rump, stature, front end, back and breed characteristics. Other categories included body capacity, as well as the condition of the cow’s feet, legs and udder.
Up to this point, the heifer had done most of the work: she showed the judge what she was made of — literally. But now it was up to the handler to clean her up and make her presentable.
Maverick Payne, 10, showed a chocolate-colored two-year-old Milking Shorthorn named Rocky. He showed her last year and won first place, junior champion and finally grand champion. Payne does not live on the farm where Rocky stays and so it is up to him to visit her and practice leading and bathing her before the show. As he waited to go into the ring, Payne explained how he got Rocky ready for the show.
“First we shave her or she’ll be all furry and we have to make a top line where the fur sticks up (along her back),” he said. “We want her to be skinnyish, not too fat.”
4-H Dairy Superintendent Robin Severy agreed that the dairy cows should look more angular than the bovine that are used for beef. Severy was in charge of overseeing the show and was impressed by the quality of the heifers being shown. But she was also impressed by the young handlers and how they exemplify the 4-H motto “learn by doing.”
“They get to raise an animal, then they exhibit it,” said Severy. “There are a lot of different aspects to what they’re doing.”
And one of those aspects, if you ask the young handlers, may well be an emotional one.
Ten-year-old Megan Hill said she has been showing since she was a year old. She won the Best Winter Yearling Class on Tuesday with her Jersey heifer named Juna. Juna was expertly groomed, the fur on her top line standing up straight across her back, hooves polished and fur clipped and clean. But to Hill, Juna is more than a prize-winning heifer, a star in the show ring — she is a pet and a friend.
“I like the fact that cows are usually pretty smart,” said Hill. “She is my big huge baby.”

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